FRIDAY, April 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- In a four-year span, the number of U.S. children and teens taking prescription drugs to treat or prevent type 2 diabetes has increased two-fold, according to a new study.
"From 2002 to 2005, we found a doubling of type 2 diabetes medications," said Emily Cox, the senior director of research at Express Scripts, a benefits management company that conducted the study.
The researchers looked at the prescription records of nearly 4 million children. Diabetes-linked prescriptions rose from 0.3 to 0.6 per 1,000, Cox and her colleagues found.
"We help our clients understand trends and drug therapy," said Cox. "We've never seen a doubling [of prescriptions] over this period of time."
She believes the study lends credence to what doctors and other health-care professionals have long suspected: That as American children and teens become heavier, their risk for type 2 diabetes is rising.
In the study, Cox and her colleagues reviewed the prescription records of at least 3.7 million children for each of the five years. "From 2002 to 2005, 11,500 commercially insured kids were started on the type 2 drugs," Cox said. "And that doesn't include children on Medicaid."
While most children were in adolescence when they started type 2 diabetes medications, the report found that kids as young as 5 years old were placed on the drugs.
Use of type 2 diabetes medications was most common among teens 15 to 19, Cox and her team found, with the number of prescriptions rising from 0.6 to 1.2 per 1,000 children in that age group. Use of the drugs grew 106 percent among 10- to 14-year-olds between 2002-2005, the study found.
According to the American Diabetes Association, about 5 percent of all diabetics have the familial, type 1 form of diabetes, caused by a dysfunction in the cells that produce insulin. The other 95 percent of cases are type 2 diabetes, which is closely linked to obesity. In type 2 disease, the body either does not produce enough insulin, or the body's cells gradually lose sensitivity to insulin, causing a loss of control of blood sugar levels.
Having diabetes boosts the risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems.
Dr. Joyce Lee, a fellow in the division of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Michigan, said, "This study confirms what clinic reports have suggested, that the number of kids with diabetes is on the rise."
This study is the first to track actual prescriptions, "to really look at the use of the medications," she said.
But Lee said the study does have one limitation: Sometimes type 2 diabetes medications are prescribed before an actual diabetes diagnosis is made, in an effort to achieve weight loss in children and fend off the development of diabetes.
Still, the increase in the prescriptions for type 2 diabetes medication was "dramatic" over such a short time, Lee said.
About 15 percent of U.S. children and teens are overweight, according to the National Diabetes Education Program. That is about double the number of two decades ago, and strongly suggests that the obesity epidemic is fueling the increase in pediatric type 2 diabetes.
For parents who want to minimize their children's risk of getting type 2 diabetes, Lee offered this advice: "Limit fast food. Limit soft drinks. Increase fruits and vegetables. Cut down on television viewing time and computer time."
Parents should also encourage their children to exercise about 30 minutes a day, she said.
Just as important: Ask your child's pediatrician how he stacks up, weight-wise, Lee said. A pediatrician ideally will tell you during a visit what your child's body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight to height) is, and whether it is within the normal range, the overweight range, or the obese ranking.
To learn more about diabetes in children and teens, visit the U.S. National Diabetes Education Program.